DIARY - 8 SEPTEMBER 2008 - DON HELMS OBITUARY
DRIFTING COWBOY JOINS HANK
DONALD HUGH HELMS - NEW BROCKTON, ALABAMA - FEBRUARY 28, 1927
DIED NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - AUGUST 11, 2008
in 1950 I took a little nip/ along with Mr Williams on the way to Mississip/
we were stacked eight deep in a Packard limousine/ and we met this promoter
in the town of New Orleans." - The Ballad of Hank Williams - Don
Helms-Hank Williams Jr.
pedal steel guitarist Don Helms had many unique claims to fame.
And one of those he preserved in song - Hank Williams and Hank Jr
both fired him from their bands.
He and Hank Jr, also known as Bocephus, wrote The Ballad Of Hank
Williams about the genetic firing for Hank Jr's 1981 album The
Pressure Is On.
Helms was rehired by both legends and also played on albums by Hank's
daughter Jett Williams and grandson, Hank Williams III.
played on Hank's final sessions in 1952 and prophetic posthumous hit I'll
Never Get Out Of This World Alive.
But time finally caught up with Helms - the last of Hank's Drifting Cowboys
band - when he died at 81 on August 11.
Helms suffered from diabetes and heart problems in latter years.
But he worked
sessions until the eve of his passing at Skyline Medical Centre after
suffering a heart attack.
His last four known sessions were with Mark David and The Nightly Lights
on November 15, 2007, Joey Allcorn in early 2008 followed by sessions
with Teresa Street and then his final session with Vince Gill recording
unfinished Hank Williams Sr. tracks.
Helms played on more than 100 Hank Williams songs and 10 of his 11 #1
He provided dirge like, weeping notes in songs like I Can't Help It
(If I'm Still in Love With You) and I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
He also and added a catchy, propulsive twang to up-tempo numbers like
Jambalaya (On the Bayou) and Hey, Good Lookin.'
In 1945, he married Hazel Cullifer, who survives him, as do his two sons,
Frank and Marc; two brothers, Glenn and Ted; three grandchildren; and
ALABAMA WITH STEEL
"Hank looked at me with a funny looking grin/ said 'I've been to
the Opry and I'm going back again'/ we met the owner in a little office
there/ and a big fat fella with some artificial hair." - The Ballad
of Hank Williams - Don Helms-Hank Williams Jr
in New Brockton, Alabama, grew up on the family farm.
As a boy, he listened to the Texas swing music of Bob Wills and The Texas
Playboys, whose steel guitar player, Leon McAuliffe, was a big influence,
as was a local player, Pappy Neal McCormick.
At 15, he got his first steel guitar - a Sears Silvertone that was held
flat on the lap - unlike the table-style steel guitars he would later
Since the farmhouse had no electricity, he played the instrument over
a washtub to make it resonate.
The washtub resonated enough for the steel to be heard.
Each Friday he listened to the Grand Ole Opry to hear the steel players,
and he was inspired to play after hearing a performance by McCormick.
"He was playing that thing and I thought, 'Man, what a way to have
fun. What a way to make a living,' " Helms told author Colin Escott.
While still a teenager, Helms became a member of the Drifting Cowboys,
the backup band for Williams, then a local radio star who performed small
clubs and roadhouses.
Helms enlisted in the Army in 1945.
And when he was discharged two years later, Hank had signed a record contract
and was on his way to perform as a regular on Louisiana Hayride - Shreveport,
Louisiana radio show broadcast all over the South.
Helms stayed in Alabama, where he had steady performing work.
told Hank he wanted half of everything he made/ or he'd have to tell Audrey
about some women he had laid/ and you told Daddy he better get smart/
get rid of them fellas and make a new start." - The Ballad OF
Hank Williams - Don Helms- Hank Williams Jr
Williams joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1949 and created a sensation
with his first #1 hit, Lovesick Blues, Helms became part of
his Drifting Cowboys band.
He was the last surviving member of that ensemble.
Initially, Helms played a Fender eight-string double-necked guitar,
but in 1950 he acquired the Gibson Console Grand that most listeners
associate with Williams's hits. Later he would play a pedal steel
guitar, but he kept the Gibson under his bed, pulling
it out for special occasions.
sound of the pre-pedal steel guitar suited Williams's bluesy vocals. At
the suggestion of record producer Fred Rose, Helms favoured the treble
strings and played high on the neck, producing a penetrating sound that
cut through background noise of bars, honky-tonks and roadhouses where
Williams's records were most often heard.
"After the great tunes and Hank's mournful voice, the next thing
you think about in those songs is the steel guitar," said Bill Lloyd,
curator of stringed instruments at the Country Music Hall of Fame and
"It is the quintessential honky-tonk steel sound - tuneful, aggressive,
full of attitude."
The Helms sound helped move country music away from the hillbilly string-band
accompaniment popular in the 1930s and toward the more modern electric
style that took over in the 1940s, Lloyd said.
"Don was very honest about those times, but also very sentimental,"
added Lloyd, who interviewed Helms in 2006 for the Hall's Nashville Cats
"When he would tell stories about Hank, he'd sometimes well up with
Helms and Hank were a musical marriage separated only by death 55 years
"His tuning, and the way the tuning made the tone high-pitched, matched
Hank Williams's style just perfectly," said DeWitt Scott, founder
of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, which inducted Helms in 1984.
Helms played on Williams's last studio session, in September of 1952,
that generated Kaw-Liga, Take These Chains From My Heart, and Your
Cheatin' Heart, released after Williams's death on January 1, 1953.
"I played him an intro, and we sang the song through one time,"
Helms said about the recording of Your Cheatin' Heart.
After that, he said, "I never saw him alive again."
Helms also adorned Hank's prophetic posthumous hit I'll Never Get Out
Of This World Alive.
His account of those years, dictated to Dale Vinicur, was published in
2005 in Settin' the Woods on Fire: Confessions of Hank's Steel Guitar
Helms role as Williams' steel guitarist minimises his other accomplishments,
which include writing songs recorded by Brenda Lee and Hank Williams Jr.
he fired me and he fired Jerry Rivers/ and he fired everybody just as
he fast as he could go/ he fired old Cedric and he fired Sammy Pruitt/
and he fired some people he didn't even know" - The Ballad Of
Hank Williams - Don Helms-Hank Williams Jr
an instrumental record with the Drifting Cowboys, Helms and several fellow
musicians worked with Ray Price, who renamed them the Cherokee Cowboys.
Helms played on all Hank's recordings except two, done by close friend,
Don released a couple of instrumentals in the fifties that sold well.
One of them - Mud Hut - is still performed at steel guitar shows
by younger players.
Another one named Shuckin' Corn also sold well in the fifties.
Helms recorded with a vast cast of country stars, including Jim Reeves,
Webb Pierce and Ferlin Husky.
He also played on Johnny Cash's early albums for Columbia Records.
Helms was also on notable recordings such as Patsy Cline's Walkin'
After Midnight, Lefty Frizzell's Long Black Veil and Stonewall
In 1957 he joined the Nashville Tennesseans - backup band for the Wilburn
Brothers, touring with them for years and performing on their syndicated
After performing with Hank Williams Jr. and Ernest Tubb in the late 1960s
'70s, Helms reunited with the Drifting Cowboys in 1977.
In 1989 he began touring with Jett Williams.
In his later years, he did recording sessions with younger musicians like
Rascal Flatts, Bon Jovi and Kid Rock.
Daddy was making money hand over fist/ and y'all was getting screwed but
you wasn't getting kissed/ yes, I told him to pass some around/ but he
said he would rather send it to his folks back in Alabam." - The
Ballad Of Hank Williams - Don Helms-Hank Williams
also played on Newcastle singer Catherine Britt's second album Too
Far Gone - produced by Keith Stegall and Bill Chambers.
It was recorded in 2004 and belatedly released here by ABC in 2006
after Britt's U.S. label BMG passed on it.
BMG also passed on Britt's third album Little Wildflower that
has been released here.
Just before Helms' death he had worked with Vince Gill on an album
of uncompleted Hank Williams songs.
remained an active musician until the day he died," said Marty Stuart.
Helms was a regular performer at steel guitar conventions and concerts,
where he could galvanize listeners with a few signature chords from country's
music's most cherished hits.
"Don would look out over the audience as the lights dimmed,"
said Paul Hemphill, the author of Lovesick Blues, a biography of
"Then he'd say, 'Now, close your eyes and think of Hank.' "
In performance, he treated audiences to instrumental versions of songs
by Williams, Cline and many others.
Listeners left knowing Helms' playing was not a mere adornment to those
Take the steel away, and the impact of the song would be irrevocably compromised.
He showcased that playing on stages throughout his life, bringing his
1948 Gibson Console Grand to thousands of shows.
And he was at home playing the historic Ryman Auditorium or Robert's Western
World across the alley on Lower Broadway.
you know you used to work for me one time/ I sure know that but come to
think of it/ you fired my ass back in 1972/ Oh well, it's a family tradition,
you know." - The Ballad Of Hank Williams - Don Helms-Hank Williams
my mind, he was the dean of Nashville musicians," said singer-songwriter
Marty Stuart who, with his singing spouse Connie Smith, visited Helms
and Hazel - his wife of more than 60 years.
"He served at the foundational level for the family of country music.
He kept that same steel under his bed. I'd go get that guitar and hand
him his picks and he'd play Walkin' After Midnight and Cold,
Cold Heart and just freeze me to death. When he was through, you realised
there wouldn't be this part of country music if it hadn't been for Don
Helms. He truly was an essential."
Helms was revered by fellow pedal steel guitarists.
"Nobody was better respected and loved than him," said Lloyd
Green, like Helms a member of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
"There weren't a lot of stylists who were inimitable, and he certainly
was. And he never lost any skills: Throughout his life, he played exactly
like he did in the 1940s and '50s. His goal was to keep playing Hank Williams
songs until he died."
Yet the Hank Williams legacy is among country's most vital, and Helms
was pleased to be a crucial part of that legacy.
Though his face was in the shadows, his steel guitar was right up front.
"Nobody else played like that," said Country Music Hall of Fame
guitarist Harold Bradley.
"Anytime anyone does one of those Hank Williams songs, they're going
to have to copy what Don did."
Meanwhile, Hank Williams Jr. chose to ponder a reunion rather than a loss.
"The last of the Drifting Cowboys has gone home to heaven,"
"The heavenly band is now complete."
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